There was no march, no slogans written on signs, no vocal cries for change — just people gathered to enjoy a sunny day in the park.
But by gathering Wednesday afternoon at MyPark Neighborhood Park off East 18th Street in Vancouver, the 100 or so people in attendance expressed a cohesive and powerful message. They were tired of the graffiti, tired of the drug users and peddlers, tired of the negative image with which their neighborhood had unfairly been saddled.
Change, the residents of Maplewood Neighborhood Association said, is on its way.
“It’s kind of a peaceful protest,” Maplewood resident Manuel Acosta said as he held a half-eaten hot dog. “We just want to show them it’s our park.”
The Maplewood Neighborhood Association organized the community event Wednesday, providing free hot dogs and soda to neighborhood and non-neighborhood residents who visited the modest-sized park during the late afternoon. Residents chatted in the shade with their neighbors, and kids climbed the park’s playground equipment. The gang-related graffiti that just a day earlier inundated the park’s sidewalks, tables and green fence had all but disappeared.
Maplewood split from the Harney Heights Neighborhood Association in April to better address its different socioeconomic challenges. Maplewood’s 2,500 residents live south of a bluff near Fourth Plain Boulevard, are generally renters and must deal with crime issues foreign to their neighbors
on the bluff near Mill Plain Boulevard.
Graffiti bearing gang numbers and initials, anti-police messages and threats to rival gangs offends people young and old, Tania Walsh said.
“It’s like my son said, “Why do they do that? That doesn’t look good,'” Walsh said of her 8-year-old son, Josh, as they sat on playground equipment sharing a chocolate chip cookie. The mother hoped Wednesday’s show of solidarity would become a monthly ritual.
The responsibility to clean up the neighborhood doesn’t just fall on residents, said Michelle Northcutt, manager of Forest Glen and Cedar Ridge apartments in the Maplewood neighborhood. It also falls on property owners to be more diligent about keeping drug dealers out of the neighborhood.
As she stood near the park’s entrance, Northcutt offered a warts-and-all assessment.
“The park here is not for the kids,” the apartment manager said. “It’s for the drug addicts. It’s where they all come.”
That has led others in Vancouver to use negative terms when speaking about Maplewood.
“I cringe when people call this the ghetto,” resident Robin Steeley said. “Go to South Central L.A. This is Vancouver, Washington. We are part of this city.”
The neighborhood has improved dramatically in the past year in terms of gang violence, Steeley said. Yet, examples that it still exists are prevalent. For instance, Steeley recalled gang members attempted to intimidate her recently when she took photos of the graffiti.
“Right now, they do think they own this park, and they will probably tag it tonight,” Steeley said. “But we will be back.”